Portland parks series: The rhodies are in bloom!

Portland parks series: The rhodies are in bloom!

PORTLAND, Ore. - When the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming one of the most beautiful places in the city you can visit is the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden.

Every Friday we're putting the spotlight on a local park and this week we headed to this 9.49-acre greenspace at Southeast 28th and Woodstock (nestled between Reed College and the Eastmoreland Golf Course).

Scott Domine, a horticulturist for Portland Parks & Recreation who has been working at the park for the past five years, took us on a tour to show us what draws people to Crystal Springs.

"May is generally the best time to come down here to see most of the color," he said. "You know, these rolling banks of color that blend and change."

Domine is right - each bend and turn on a path and every cascade of sunshine and coolness of shade gives you a different perspective of the flowering rhododendrons. For those who love to photograph nature or paint landscapes, it's a dream location.

And there is much more to see. For example, a long bridge spans a lake and lagoon area where you can watch ducks and geese swim around in search of food. Domine said there is also a Blue Heron that regularly stops by and a family of Kingfishers that like to hang out on a log.

And the water, which according to Portland Parks & Recreation comes from 13 springs that produce about 6,000 gallons of water per minute, is beautiful in its own right. Most of the time it's very clear.

"It's (called) Crystal Springs for a reason," said Domine. "You can see all the way to the bottom. People drop their keys over the rail and you can see right where they're at. I have a long tool I can use to fish them out. Cell phones, though, are generally toast once they go in," he said with a laugh.

Look closely at the water and you might see some of the catfish or carp that live there. And another creature you might spot - and possibly mistake for a beaver or muskrat - is a nutria, which isn't exactly welcome at the park but is tolerated.

"One of the more challenging things we have here is the nutria," Domine told us. "(They're) tunneling, digging and notching our trees."

A nutria is a large, water-dwelling rodent that is commonly referred to as the world's biggest rat. They can be destructive - the picture at the right shows the damage that nutria did to a tree at Crystal Springs.

We asked Domine how many nutria are at the park and he said he wasn't really sure.

"They're more nocturnal so it's hard to tell," he said. "I do see one or two from time to time during the day."

With nutria, migratory birds, fish, trees, flowers and much more, Crystal Springs is a microcosm of nature, which makes it the perfect learning environment.

"We have students that come in from different places," said Domine. "They'll come in and they'll do things like count bugs, measure water quality, catalog and categorize weeds and bird species. It's really a great classroom for environmental education opportunities."

Those who spend their days caring for the park each have their favorite spots. At the beginning of our tour we talked briefly to Maintenance Supervisor Betsy Redfearn, who immediately took us to what's called the 'Fern Wall.' 

Redfearn told us it was amazing to watch landscape designers install the wall. She said each rock was laid in place according to a plan and each fern has its own watering system built right into the rock face. If you go, look closely and you'll see a small spout above each fern that drips water down onto the plant.

Now in case you're wondering, the funding for projects at Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, like the fern wall and waterfall features, comes from various sources including grants, donations, Friends of Crystal Springs memberships, admission fees, plant sales and fees charged for weddings.

As far as the ongoing care, in addition to Portland Parks & Recreation employees there are volunteers who regularly help out. The Portland Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, the Friends of Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden and the Master Gardeners program all spend time at Crystal Springs. Volunteers also plan education programs and special events.

Speaking of special events, Crystal Springs is a popular spot for folks to tie the knot. Other events, like memorials, are frequently held there as well. You have to reserve a spot in advance and there is a fee, which is calculated based on the size of the group and the hours you want. If you'd like more information, you can contact the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden Event Coordinator at (503) 975-6743.

If You Go

Admission is $3 through the summer months and children 12 and under get in for free.

Taking in the beauty that surrounds you at Crystal Springs is an adventure. If you go be sure to pick up a Walking Tour brochure (available at the entrance).

Did You Know?

Finally, here are a few interesting facts that we discovered in the Walking Tour brochure, authored by Sally Phillips, and from the Portland Parks & Recreation website:

  • There are more than 2,500 rhododendrons, azaleas, and companion plants at Crystal Springs.
  • The oldest rhododendron in the park was planted there prior to 1917.
  • The rocks used to build the waterfalls and other features were gathered from Mount Hood and Mount Adams.
  • William S. Ladd, who served two terms as the mayor of Portland back in the 1800s, is the original owner of the garden property. He called it Crystal Springs Farm.
  • The first rhododendron show at Crystal Gardens was held in 1956.

All photos, including those in the gallery, by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU News.